I kind of feel the need to preface this review by mentioning that I am not an American and I have very little knowledge about the history of America beyond its early days as a British colony. Heck, I don’t even have a lot of knowledge about current American politics and even here in Switzerland, it’s nigh on inescapable. Probably one of the biggest knowledge gaps concerns the American Civil War. I think that conflict has shaped America in ways only remotely familiar to me. We here in Switzerland had a civil war, but the war for independence is much more important (you know, that whole William Tell/Gessler thing that’s literally the only thing people know about my country outside of chocolate, cheese and the cuckoo clock – at least according to The Third Man) and if this particular conflict has taught me anything, it’s the fact that even after the battles are fought, the problems that caused them rarely tend to actually go away, since the things that the battle of our independence was about is still used as an argumentative hammer in current political discussions. What I’m trying to say with this is that the American Civil War probably still has effects that linger to this very day, especially in today’s politically charged world, where everybody’s feelings are not to be hurt at any cost.
So you can already guess that the guy who’s known for not so subtle messages and very much overtly unsubtle use of violence in his movies tackling the past and current problem of White America vs Progressive America is obviously going back to the well of the American Civil War. Or at least it features as a backdrop, since the story it tells is actually set a number of years after the war has ended.
But before we get into actual interpretation of the material, let’s talk about the story a bit. In all honesty, there’s not really that much to it. Two bounty hunters who work independently happen to end up traveling together to flee a blizzard. Unable to reach their actual goal, they settle for an old store to wait out the blizzard which is already occupied by another group of travelers. If this sounds already familiar, it’s because you’re thinking of Reservoir Dogs. And to hammer this point home even more, we never actually leave this location for the entire movie, outside of a flashback – again like Reservoir Dogs – and just like that film, what keeps the movie going is the absolutely nerve-wracking amount of tensions that builds up in the lodge.
I won’t really go into specifics about the story itself since a large part of it is a mystery. It’s almost as if Tarantino chose to adapt an Agatha Christie novel set int he Old West. Suffice it to say that the actual mystery is set up quite cleverly, although the introduction of said mystery feels a bit clumsy. As is typical for Tarantino, he likes to play with the medium he’s working in. So out of nowhere we suddenly get some narration by himself about certain things the movie purposefully concealed from the viewer before. It’s a bold move but I’m not sure it’s for the best. In any case, figuring out he mystery entirely is only possible if you carefully pay attention to the opening credits, which on reflection do give you quite a big hint since one person mentioned there doesn’t show up for the first two hours, otherwise it just seems like a mystery plot specifically written to not be solvable by the viewer in order to pull the rug from under your feet.
But let’s get back to the actual interpretation of the material on display here. The characters we have assembled in the lodge basically recreate the United States of America as a microcosm constructed out of the titular eight characters. The conflict of the Civil War is still very much alive here and many of the conversations – which by the way are, as is typical for Tarantino, excellently written – all strongly tie political positions back then to current political positions especially in conjunction to police brutality. Which is obviously why Tarantino was so outspoken about this whole ordeal, since this movie very much addresses it. It’s a really nice parable, which usually is the most interesting way to highlight problems and provide solutions with, but it’s usually done with a bit more subtlety and an understanding of the opposing viewpoint which kind of lacks here. It’s certainly no Ring Parable (if you’re not familiar with it, read Nathan the Wise, it’s a brilliant piece of that play) and I feel that overall it’s just too viscerally enjoyable if you’re on one side of the debate and not the other (guess my position ;)) but it’s still a nice touch how superficial enemies end up being nice to each other by the end, though I’m not sure if they’re united specifically on the basis of a common cause.
In the end, I’m not sure if this is one of those compulsively watchable Tarantino movies as some of his previous offerings were. It’s very slow at times and seems to lack a clear direction until the third act rolls around (all acts are conveniently labelled), but on the other hand it’s absolutely gorgeously shot with fantastic performances by everybody involved. It’s really funny at times, especially when Walton Goggins tries and fails to be a badass with his big dumb mouth filling the screen while surrounded by people like Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson for whom this thing comes entirely naturally. And Tim Roth seems to be having the time of his life in his role. Overall it’s not bad, but also not an instant cult classic, more like Tarantino in arthouse mode.